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The most obvious departure of this 3D feature spin off from the
acclaimed BBC series with the same name on which it is based is the
fact that the titular dinosaurs actually talk. Well to be honest, talk
might be a bit of an overstatement seeing as how the characters' mouths
don't actually move much; rather, what we have is an attempt to
humanise these dinosaurs for a young target audience, which in the
minds of the filmmakers, means fitting Disney-fied dialogue into the
As scripted by 'Happy Feet's' John Collee, the kid-friendly plot follows the template of a coming-of-age story where a young Pachyrhinosaurus named Patchi (voiced by Justin Long) grows into a leader over the course of a long migration. His companion and buddy happens to be a prehistoric parrot that goes by the name of Alex (voiced by John Leguizamo), who forms the bridge between the opening modern-day sequence - featuring a cameo by Josh Duhamel - and 70 million years back where most of the action unfolds.
Cast as timid and socially awkward, the film introduces Patchi as the runt of the litter, easily distinguishable from the rest of his siblings by a hole on the right side of his frill following a close shave with a predator as a kid. A change in the weather patterns prompts his herd's migration by his father Bulldust, which sets into motion a chain of events that will have Patchi eventually claiming the honour of leading the herd. It isn't just his inner strength that Patchi will discover by the end of the journey; along the way, Patchi also finds a romantic interest in the form of Juniper (Tiya Sircar), a fellow Pachyrhinosaurus he experiences love at first sight with.
As far as children-oriented pictures go, the story in this one is on many accounts too simplistic. There is some attempt to inject dramatic tension by setting up Patchi's rivalry with his brutish older brother Scowler (Skyler Stone), but it is hardly compelling stuff. Same goes for the storybook romance between Patchi and Juniper, which to no surprise builds to a happily-ever-after ending. In fact, much more entertaining is Patchi's loquacious friend and ally Alex, whose non-stop chatter consisting of all sorts of puns makes him the undeniably most engaging one of the lot.
Truth be told though, little would be lost if directors Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale had simply done away with the formulaic story. Simply put, the visuals are stunning, seamlessly mixing CGI with breathtaking backdrops in Alaska and New Zealand to transport its audience back in time into a world when dinosaurs ruled the Earth; and the experience is even more awe-inspiring captured on film using the cutting-edge cinematographic technology which James Cameron had employed for 'Avatar'. Seeing as how tacked on the dialogue feels to the visuals of the movie, one can't quite help but feel that the filmmakers should simply have stuck with the original's documentary approach.
Of course, Nightingale is no stranger to that; as the creative director of BBC Earth and the producer of countless other nature documentaries, he is more than well versed in the language of non-fiction. Unfortunately, he seems to have given freer rein to Cook, whose background in animated features like 'Mulan' and 'Arthur Christmas' has resulted in what is essentially a live-action Disney cartoon about dinosaurs. In spite of the occasional educational cards sharing the scientific names of the dinosaurs and their general dietary preference (whether herbivore or carnivore or omnivore), there is no shaking off the feeling that the charm of the original series has been largely lost on its journey to the big screen.
Not that the US$85 million dollar production is without merit - like we said, the combination of computer animation and live-action is never less than impressive and captivating, demonstrating the leaps and bounds by which technology has advanced since Steven Spielberg first enthralled the world using animatronics in 'Jurassic Park'. On that account alone, it should more than be a fascinating watch for the kiddies; grown-ups though will have a harder time immersing themselves into the lifelike world, ultimately challenged by the artificial dialogue and even more clichéd plot.
For those who felt that the first verse of Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit'
trilogy was a meandering slog, the good news is that his second
proceeds at a gallop right from the get-go. Save for a brief prologue
that flashes back to the snug bar of the Prancing Pony where our old
pal Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield first hatched their plan to reclaim
the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor, this episode moves from one adventure
to another with newfound energy, so rest assured that it is certainly a
more engaging adventure than the first movie.
Whether it manages to capture the magic of the 'Lord of the Rings' films is yet another matter, and we're sad to disappoint fans that, in our opinion, it falls short on several counts. Indeed, even though it does offer the same sort of sweeping fantasy action of the 'Rings', it doesn't quite match its poignancy, owing to a thin plot that goes all over the place and a distinct lack of character development. Yes, at its best, it is a collection of impressively executed action set-pieces strung together by the quest of one particular hobbit named Bilbo Baggins and 13 dwarfs in search of lost treasure.
The highlight is no doubt a thrilling sequence in which a dozen dwarfs flee their elven captors by riding inside wooden barrels down a rapidly rushing river, only to encounter an even more dreaded enemy - the hideous looking Orcs - that force a temporary alliance between the Elves and the dwarfs. That sequence alone is testament to Jackson's ability to mount elaborate action with considerable flair and imagination - and worthy of mention is not just how he manages to find moments of levity in between a brisk edge-of-your-seat segment, but also how he juggles important character details amidst the flying arrows and numerous beheadings.
Nothing quite comes close to the level of fun and excitement of this centrepiece barrel chase, not even for that matter Bilbo's eventual encounter with the fire-bellied Smaug. But not to get ahead of ourselves, our protagonists also pass through a couple of obstacles en route to their assault on the dragon up in Lonely Mountain - a trek through the enchanted forest of Mirkwood brings them face to face with giant CGI spiders, and following their imprisonment and escape from the stronghold of the woodland elves, they find themselves among not so friendly human company in the village of Laketown. Like we said at the start, there is an urgency to the proceedings which was absent in the first movie, and aside from their time spent in Laketown, unfolds like a supercharged Saturday morning picture.
There is a tradeoff though. First and foremost is the fact that there doesn't seem to be much meat to the tale. Despite the efforts of the original 'Rings' screen writing team of Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens as well as the series' original intended director of Guillermo del Toro, there is no shaking off the feeling that there simply isn't enough in what was a book of less than 300 pages to fill roughly nine hours of film - not even with the interpolation of sections of "The Quest of Erebor", one of J.R.R. Tolkien's so-called "Unfinished Tales".
Neither for that matter is there much of the characters to speak of. Bilbo feels sidelined in his own tale, spending much of the time in the movie resisting the temptation of the ring he riddled out of Gollum in 'An Unexpected Journey'. Thorin is left to the end to do a little soul- searching whether he has allowed his obsession with regaining the throne to cloud his better judgment. Gandalf, on the other hand, goes off on his own to Dol Guldur to investigate the appearance of the Necromancer and a purported gathering army of darkness. The rest of the characters in the book are largely there to fill the backdrop.
Perhaps the most fully realised character here is Smaug himself, whom voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a mesmerising presence to behold. It is only after the two-hour mark that Bilbo confronts the serpent, and the faceoff between hobbit and dragon over dwarf land and gold is a sparkling exchange largely scripted with wit and purpose. Beginning with a glimpse of its open eye amidst mountains of golden coins, Jackson's rendition of Smaug is an awesome sight to behold, both in majesty and authority. Over and under the walls of the imposing castle under the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo and Smaug trade barbs and quips trying to outsmart and outguess each other's next moves, before Thorin and the rest of the dwarfs arrive to lend the newly brave hobbit some much- needed assistance. In all though, the confrontation is too drawn out for its own good, losing much of its own momentum during the concluding frames right before the cliffhanger ending that is supposed to whet your appetite for the third and concluding chapter.
And therein lies our central gripe with 'The Desolation of Smaug' and it seems with 'The Hobbit' series borne out of essentially a kid's tale, it never quite reaches the epic heights of the 'Rings', lacking in compelling plot and character despite Jackson and his writers' efforts to augment Tolkien's tale. Sure it picks up considerably from the amiable pace of its predecessor, but it relies too much on spectacle to distract its audience from an absence of almost everything else. The familiarity with the 'Rings' trilogy is unmistakable from composer Howard Shore's lush strains to production designer's Dan Hennah's elaborate sets to Weta's top-notch visual effects to Andrew Lesnie's lensing of the breathtaking New Zealand locations but this middle instalment still fails to recapture the magic, the wonder and most importantly the heart of the 'Rings'.
If you need an example of a movie which wears its ambitions proudly on
its sleeve, look no further than Kenneth Bi's latest 'Control'. Billed
as a game-changer for Chinese cinema by being the first of its kind to
be set against an entirely computer-generated visual world, the
adaptation of Jack Messitt's book of the same name aims for a sci-fi
noir feel not unlike that of 'Sin City' or 'The Spirit', but ultimately
settles for much more familiar territory in its story of an ordinary
man's desperate battle with an unseen villain.
Indeed, one can't quite shake off the distinct sense of familiarity between 'Control' and 'Connected', the latter of which was itself a remake of the Hollywood movie 'Cellular'; in both films, a hapless individual is at the behest of a voice on the phone in order to preserve the life of someone else. The main - but gradually insignificant - difference here is that Daniel Wu's leading character Mark is a victim of his own choices, his virtual captor having latched on to the fact that he had falsified his testimony in court in return for a fast-track promotion at work.
Bi situates that premise within an unnamed modern metropolis in Asia sometime in the near future, but what so special about that city or for that matter that time period in which it is set remains unclear throughout the film. After establishing some impressive overhead VFX shots of a metallic looking city gleaming in the dark of the night, Bi pretty much leaves that mise-en-scene in the background, and aside from the fact that Mark's nemesis seems to be able to track his every move via a dense network of closed-circuit cameras around the city, there is hardly little to suggest that the unfolding action is taking place amidst a futuristic dystopia.
Instead, Bi concentrates on building an aura of suspense around Mark's 'missions', including robbing a restaurant's patrons at gunpoint, threatening a high-school flame Jessica (Chen Yao) for access into a bank's safe deposit vault, and dealing in firearms. Slowly but surely, Mark meets others like him who have been similarly coerced against their will to do the bidding of that same mysterious person, and together they start to form a shaky alliance to uncover the identity of that shadowy villain. Unfortunately for Mark, he ends up tied to a chair facing a powerful gangster he ripped off Tiger (Simon Yam) as well as Tiger's right-hand man Devil (Leon Dai), that sequence both opening and capping the preceding events which Mark recounts to his physical captors.
A significant genre change from his filmmaking debut 'Rice Rhapsody' or his subsequent 'The Drummer' and 'Girl$', Bi does commendably in building an engaging narrative that to its credit is less straightforward than you might expect. There is also a twist right at the end that you probably won't see coming, a slightly implausible but no less interesting turn of events that puts a fresh perspective on everything that you have seen unfolding without making you feel duped. What is nonetheless lacking is character development, which is barely there for Mark and almost non-existent for the rest of the supporting acts.
The buck then rests squarely with Daniel Wu, whose earnest leading performance does its best to win his audience's sympathy; and yet there is only so much he can do to redeem a thinly written character. The rest of the ensemble is pretty much wasted - Yam's over-the-top villainous act is something he can do with his eyes closed; Taiwanese actor Dai barely has a few lines of dialogue before Yam takes over; and Chen Yao seems bored than enthused to be sharing the screen with Wu.
For all that talk about being the first of its kind, 'Control' underwhelms for failing to make use of its futuristic cityscapes (supervised by our very own Nickson Fong no less) to mount an immersive dystopia built upon its titular concept. Instead, it settles for a much more conventional suspense thriller that's been done and done before, saved by a nifty twist at the end that provides neat closure. If you're looking for a smart sci-fi thriller, this will most definitely not be it; at best, it serves as a teaser for a more ambitious filmmaker to come along and realise the possibilities of a genre that's largely been shunted by Chinese cinema. There's no doubt the effects are top-drawer; now for a compelling story.
If there is one Hong Kong action thriller to watch this year, it is
without any doubt the exhilarating 'Firestorm'. Emboldened by the
success of last year's 'Cold War', co-producer Bill Kong has set
veteran screenwriter Alan Yuen to stage an all-out, no-holds-barred
cops-versus- criminals action film set in and around downtown Hong
Kong. The result is simply jaw-dropping to say the least, choreographed
and executed on a scale we believe has never before been seen in any
Hong Kong movie, and better still, complemented by a tight engaging
script that draws you into its character-driven plot.
There is a hitch though - it does start off rather bumpily. The opening minutes try to pack too many details at one go. A prologue tries to establish Andy Lau and Gordon Lam's respective characters as rivals on the judo mat when they were still kids. Flash forward quickly to present day and Lau's Inspector Lui is the godfather to his informant's (Patrick Keung) autistic daughter. Meanwhile, Lam's ex-con To has just been released from prison, and despite promising his girlfriend, Bing (Chen Yao), that he has turned over a new leaf, quickly falls back on the wrong side of the law. All that backstory makes for a pretty confusing start we must say, but you'll start putting things together once the first major action sequence rolls along.
Led by Hu Jun's Nam, a crew of hardened criminals pulls off a daring midday heist on an armoured car. Flawlessly executed and backed with better firepower than the Hong Kong police force, they not only make off with the loot, but also in the process expose the ineptness of Inspector Lui and his partner's (Kenny Wong) team. To rub salt onto their wounds, Nam turns up right after the crime at the police station to taunt Lui by claiming to be a good and responsible citizen returning the badge of one of the police officers who had dropped it during the melee. The cops' only lead lies in To, apprehended at the scene of the crime for ramming his car into that of Lui's but claiming that it was no more than an accident.
The trailer would have you know that To eventually becomes Lui's informant, but it isn't quite so straightforward. Indeed, Yuen saves what you might expect would be another 'Infernal Affairs' variant for something much more unpredictable; instead, he focuses his attention in the first half of the movie building up the rivalry between Lui and Nam, the former a strict and rigorous officer of the law who firmly believes that his work is his mission and the latter a smart and cunning criminal mastermind with little restraint and even less mercy. Emphasising Lui's convictions as a police officer, the battle of wits between Lui and Nam is meant also as a test of Lui's own tenacity and, by extension, just where his breaking point lies.
To reveal anything more will not do any justice to Yuen's surprisingly twisty and compelling narrative, which plots a gripping trajectory on the way to the formation of a shaky alliance between Lui and To. Except for a deus ex machina that effectively substitutes Nam for another equally vicious criminal named Pak (Ray Lui), the storytelling is pretty much top-notch, deftly using a whole host of characters and their respective motivations to drive the many twists and turns along the way. Chief among that is of course just what will force a law-abiding police officer to his knees such as to abandon his deeply held morals, but aside from that, the more poignant question is in fact what would make a seasoned criminal 'surrender' his personal allegiance to the police.
Especially inspired is Yuen's decision to save Lui and To's alliance till the very end, by which time it isn't so much whether To will ultimately betray Lui but whether the latter will do so the former, seeing as how Lui is no longer the rational minded policeman he used to be at the start. It's a pretty nifty twist, made even more exciting by how it plays out right in the middle of an intense gunfight between Pak and his crew with the full force of the Hong Kong police in the middle of a busy street in the Central district. That extended climax is well worth the price of admission alone, not least for the exceptionally coherent choreography by veteran Chin Kar-Lok but also the sheer effort the filmmakers had taken to film what must have been a logistically mind-boggling sequence.
But it isn't just by the sheer scale and intensity of this last showdown that you'll be blown away; without any doubt, Chin has outdone himself yet again with quite possibly some of the most daring action scenes performed on the busy bustling streets of Hong Kong. From the opening heist to a confrontation between Lui and Nam's men within a public housing apartment building to a stakeout at a public square in between the Sheung Wan and Central area to the final all-out bullets ballad in the heart of Central, the stunts are never less than thrilling every step of the way - and breathtaking even - for the boldness in imagining and then the dedication to execute them.
And for Yuen's ambition of filming a true-blue Hong Kong police thriller, we must say that he has not only accomplished that with 'Firestorm', he has done so exceedingly. This is by far one of the most thrilling Hong Kong action thrillers you'll ever see, not just for its heartstopping action sequences but also for its captivating story of choices, consequences and ultimately principles. It is Hong Kong cinema at its most electrifying, living thoroughly up to its name of being a lightning rod for future such police thrillers to come.
How often do you get the chance to see three of Hong Kong's most
charismatic male actors - Sean Lau, Louis Koo and Nick Cheung - on the
big screen together? And just for that very reason, you're probably
entitled to go into Benny Chan's crime thriller with high expectations.
Yet even though the triumvirate does not disappoint one bit, everything
else about the movie set against the backdrop of the fight against
illegal narcotics simply comes off underwhelming, so much so that you
can't quite help but feel that their combined star wattage is somehow
No less than five writers have been credited for the sprawling narrative, which casts Lau, Koo and Cheung as childhood best friends who have since graduated into police officers of the narcotics bureau. Lau plays the de facto leader of the group, the most ambitious and headstrong of the lot, who in his role as Chief Inspector Tin also wields authority over his friends. On the other hand, Koo's Chow has been deep undercover amongst the drug dealing triads for some time now, and since risen amongst the ranks to be Hak Tsai's (Ben Lam) right hand man. But he's also disillusioned, especially with his wife expecting a baby, and wants out immediately.
Co-written by Chan himself, the script pits Tin against Chow when a sting operation supposed to be Chow's last mission is aborted at the last minute. The higher-ups want Chow to continue undercover so they can bait a larger fish - the infamous kingpin named Eight Faced Buddha (Lo Hoi Pang) of the Golden Triangle and Tin reminds Chow of his obligation as a police officer to obey orders. Compared to Tin and Chow, Cheung's role as the soft-spoken Wai only becomes clearer at this point - he's the pacifist among the lot, the one urging calm and reason as Tin and Chow butt heads with each other.
Despite some strong initial reservations, Chow reluctantly accepts his orders to follow Hak Tsai into Bangkok to make contact with the Eight- Faced Buddha via a local dealer (Ken Lo). Needless to say, that operation set in the middle of a dense forested region ends badly - not only does Tin lose one of his men (Ng Ting Yip), he is also eventually forced to make a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. That impossible moral dilemma at the halfway mark also marks the high point of the movie not only is it the single most emotionally intense moment, it also marks the culmination of what is easily the most thrilling action sequence of the film.
Structured as two acts, the close of this chapter with a literal bang also represents the point at which the movie quickly goes downhill. A fundamental twist two-thirds into the film that sees the return of a key character from the dead is clichéd to say the least, not to mention the resolution that plots the trio's final showdown with Buddha at a nightclub in Macau. The character beats hardly make up for the plotting - in particular, every moment meant to be poignant seems to proceed on the mistaken notion that it must be a high strung one, meaning that the characters are consistently forced to confront each other by shouting and jostling.
Chan's direction here is also to blame. There is absolutely no subtlety to be found here, with Chan finding it necessary at every turn to crank the volume and the intensity of every scene to maximum. Not only does that make for plenty of cringe-worthy melodrama, it also creates too many moments of unnecessary histrionics. The lack of restraint applies as well to the overindulgent plot, which comes off unintentionally amusing at turns for being pure cliché. And nowhere is the excessiveness more apparent than in the final shootout, which aims for the kind of operatic grandeur associated with Johnnie To gangster movies (think 'Exiled') but falls far short by being simply too ridiculous; indeed, the sheer absurdity of that bullet-riddled showdown undermines what credibility the brotherhood-in-peril narrative had left, which ultimately rings hollow.
Just about the only element - or rather elements - holding the film together are the solid performances of the lead actors. Lau and Cheung prove yet again why they are the best actors of their generation, and despite the film's tendencies, both know absolutely better than to overplay their characters, displaying both nuance and depth in their acting. Koo has, despite his best efforts, never quite been in the same league as his two other male co-stars. His deficiencies as an actor are even more stark - especially in certain scenes where he is called upon to emote, there is a genuine sense that he is trying and perhaps trying too hard.
It's a thorough pity therefore, that despite gathering some of the best acting talents from Hong Kong, this bombastic narco-thriller fails to be as compelling as it should be. Part of the fault lies with the messy script, lacking in the discipline and focus necessary to distil a gripping story of three friends whose bond of brotherhood is put to the test; while another part of the fault also lies with Chan's distinct lack of awareness for excess, and whether in terms of drama or action, the tone is obstinately over-the-top. It isn't Chan's finest moment that's for sure, and seeing as how there is no shortage of similar thrillers like 'Drug War' or 'Protégé', this latest addition is worthwhile only for being the rare opportunity to watch three of Hong Kong's finest actors share the screen together.
Cormac McCarthy's 'No Country for Old Men' may have made a gripping
Coen brothers crime thriller, but his first produced screenplay after
earning the love of Hollywood from subsequent adaptations like 'The
Road' and 'All the Pretty Horses' proves that it is one thing to be a
writer and quite another to be a screenwriter. Indeed, the characters
in his self- penned 'The Counselor' not only talk a lot (and we might
add, too much), they also do so with such pretentiousness that it's
hard to imagine any of them actually inhabiting more than a McCarthy
The titular character remains unnamed throughout the film, but Michael Fassbender plays him as a respectable American lawyer who is tempted by his financial circumstance to enter into some illegal business involving a Mexican cocaine cartel. The overwritten script brings in a whole lot of other characters with shady motivations there's Javier Bardem's Reiner, a business partner of the counsellor who is instrumental in hooking him up with the wrong people; Reiner's girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who turns out even more conniving and malevolent than Reiner himself; and last but not least, Westray (Brad Pitt), a shadowy figure whose involvement remains obtuse throughout the movie.
McCarthy's idea of building character relationships is to get them to engage in lengthy conversations and wax philosophically about his signature themes of greed, death, choices and consequences. The eloquence however rings phony and hollow, sounding exactly as if a writer typed them though admittedly if listening to lines like "truth has no temperature" from Diaz when she is accused of being "cold" gets you tingling, then you will be in for a treat. Otherwise, the dialogue is affected as can be, not least because there are at least two lengthy expositions on morality, mortality, regret and even Heavenly redemption.
In the midst of all that capital W writing, the venerable Ridley Scott seems genuinely lost and befuddled. There is hardly any visual momentum to the scenes when all the characters are doing are primarily talking, and because the manner in which they talk makes it seem as if they could go on and on, the transitions in between scenes feel awkward and unwieldy. In between, Scott prettifies the images to show off his character's lavish lifestyles, which his 'Prometheus' cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ensures are a sight to behold. But when he does get a break from the prose, Scott indulges the borderland noir with casual violence, staging not one but two bloody beheadings that we warn you are pretty graphic.
Speaking of beheadings, you probably won't care much for one of them, but the other, set in a busy street in the heart of London, will probably take you by surprise not just for how bloody it is, but also why that said actor would agree to such a sequence. But we suspect, most of the actors probably signed on because of the pedigree, and then realised how lacking in clarity and plausibility the script was. Still, they make the best of what they have, though in different ways. Fassbender tries hard to convince, but his earnest intentions are somewhat undermined by the sheer cartoonish nature of Bardem's over-the- top getup as well as Diaz's similarly overdone femme fatale.
And so despite a script by a Pulitzer prize winner, a terrific ensemble cast and Ridley Scott at the helm, 'The Counselor' is a frustrating example of under fulfilled potential. One sort of guesses what McCarthy intended with this screenplay, but his own indulgence and lack of familiarity with the language of film just makes this a writer's exercise and nothing more. It isn't Scott nor the cast's fault that the movie unfolds with a distinct lack of drama, urgency or purpose. Like we said at the beginning, it's one thing to be a good writer and quite another to be a good screenwriter. McCarthy clearly isn't yet a jack of both trades.
Spike Lee's 'reimagining' of the Park Chan-Wook cult classic 'Oldboy'
is a queer creature despite the notable absence of the original's
iconic octopus-slurping scene. Those unfamiliar with Park's original,
which itself was based on a late 1990s Japanese manga, will likely find
it bizarre and even off-putting; and yet those who have seen and loved
Park's 2004 Cannes Gran Prix winner are likely to dismiss this as mild
and underwhelming compared to the original. But most of all, there is
something distinctly Asian in the tale's themes of revenge and solitude
that feel an odd and therefore unsatisfying fit for an Americanised
Yes, to call Lee's version a remake will be if you take the filmmaker's words for it akin to blasphemy. According to Lee, he and his writer Mark Protosevich had not sought to remake Park's movie; rather, they have returned to the manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi to shape a similar yet somewhat different story that keeps the essential baroque details intact. And so the setup is the same a cold- blooded businessman is drugged and held captive in a windowless hotel room for 20 years, before being let out in a suitcase in the middle of a field.
The ever dependable character actor Josh Brolin plays the titular character named Joe Doucett, which we are introduced to as a boozy advertising executive who blows a make-or-break deal by propositioning his client's wife at the very meeting. His sentence for the next two decades while in captivity includes watching a ripped off version of 'America's Most Wanted' where he is held as the prime suspect for his ex-wife's murder, in between being fed the daily news as well as Chinese dumplings. The question upon his release is not who, but why as 'District 9's' Sharlto Copley plainly puts to him after revealing himself very early into the movie as Joe's captor which forms the core of the mystery behind his unusual circumstance.
Joe is aided in his subsequent quest for punishment and redemption by a bartender friend (The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli) as well as a kind- hearted social worker (Elizabeth Olsen). He has a timeline too Copley threatens to kill his daughter in the next 48 hours if he fails to figure out his identity as well as the reason for his imprisonment. Neither should be unfamiliar to those who have seen Park's version; indeed, despite what Lee and Protosevich claim, they have only sought to vary the details from their predecessor.
So instead of an exercise in dentistry when Joe confronts the caretaker of his prison (Samuel L. Jackson), we are treated to an equally grotesque sequence where he slices bits of skin from off the man's throat. Instead of gobbling an octopus live and whole, Joe merely stares hard at the animal in a restaurant aquarium. And perhaps most significantly, Joe gets to restage the original film's iconic extended sequence where his character takes on an entire army of thugs with no more than a claw hammer and pure rage - a three and a half minute scene rehearsed for six weeks which to Lee's credit, loses none of its predecessor's visceral thrills.
Notwithstanding the distinct sense of familiarity with the proceedings, there is just something lost in translation. Park's original was the second and perhaps most famous instalment of his "Vengeance Trilogy" whose exploration of redemption and salvation was firmly set against a unique cultural context; unfortunately, the motivations for Joe's imprisonment lack that dramatic heft when yanked out of that context, especially since the inherent familial concepts make much more sense within an Asian setting. Lee also does himself little favour by undermining an otherwise grim and thoughtful story with cartoonish elements, most notably Jackson's garish performance (complete with blonde ponytail we may add) as Joe's chief jailer turned tormentor.
Thankfully, Brolin anchors the titular role with his compelling presence, built on a single-minded embrace of his character's vengeance. His transformation from self-pity to determination is a testament to his prowess as an actor, not to mention his dedication by having gained and then lost a lot of weight. Olsen provides a surprisingly warm emotional centre to the movie, especially in portraying the love angle between her character and Joe - which happens to be one of the ancillary additions Protosevich has brought to this adaptation. Copley is similarly excellent as the demented mastermind behind Joe's depravity, in particular when the two finally confront each other's demons in the operatic climax.
Yet call it what you may, but Lee's "reinterpretation" can never quite dissociate itself from Park's festival cult classic. Not only do the key elements remain similar, Lee also retains the iconic touches of the South Korean original. But beyond the graphic brutality, there is just something too culturally specific about the story's twists on revenge and redemption that defy a cross-cultural interpretation. It won't satisfy fans weaned on Park's version, nor for that matter is it likely to win over new converts with its uneven mix of fantasy and stylised naturalism. They'll be baffled, they'll be astonished, but it is unlikely if you are encountering this tale for the first time that you'll be impressed.
Walt Disney Pictures' celebrated reputation is often entwined with its
impressive history of animated musicals: mention "The Little Mermaid",
"Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King", all Oscar-winning films
with extraordinary songs that have lingered as quintessential childhood
memories in the minds of many.
It's almost a return to full form this time with 2013's holiday animated feature "Frozen", penned and co-directed by Jennifer Lee (co-writer of "Wreck-It Ralph") alongside Chris Buck ("Surf's Up"). Following the trend of last year's Scottish fairy tale "Brave", where a feisty flame- haired princess rebels against family pressure and social expectations in order to live life on her own terms, "Frozen" is adapted from Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen". It features a pair of princesses from the fictional country of Arrendale who are, rather expectedly, as different as night and day: Coolly reserved and classically beautiful, Elsa (Idina Menzel, Broadway stalwart and occasional "Glee" guest star) is born with the seemingly limitless gift of being able to manipulate ice and snow, able to produce it with a wave of her hand, while her little sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is ordinary but naturally vivacious and plucky.
A childhood accident that leaves Anna aesthetically scarred with a lock of blond hair in her auburn locks convinces Elsa that her powers must be hidden in order to prevent further harm. Yet the more the truth is concealed, the less control she has. Elsa withdraws both emotionally and physically, alienating Anna and creating in her both a strong independence and a yearning for love and attention. Things take a turn for the worse with their parents' passing. On the day of Elsa's coronation, an argument with Anna who is insistent on marrying Hans (Santino Fontana), a prince she met merely moments ago agitates her to the point where she reveals her long-concealed powers to the entire city and visitors.
Terrified, Elsa flees into a distant mountain, letting loose the full extent of her talent in the construction of a new ice palace to retreat into. Meanwhile, guilt-ridden and left with a country languishing in eternal winter, Anna travels into the cold to make peace with her sister, enlisting the help of a woodsman in the unfortunate business of selling snow, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), together with his highly intuitive but non-speaking reindeer Sven and the adorable snowman Olaf (Josh Gad). In the middle of it, Anna gets iced in the heart, a fatal injury that can only be resolved by (what else?) an act of true love but what does that look like, and is it what everyone imagines it to be?
The digital effects are top-notch, and this isn't just in reference to the characters' hair. Donning the 3D glasses in a typical cinema (that is, non-IMAX) gives an experience that is nearly IMAX quality. Snowflakes almost seem to fall out of the screen; the wintry landscapes seem to reduce the temperatures palpably by a few degrees Celsius. It's a highly immersive experience, but what could pull you back during the show is when the characters breaks into song. When done well, it's seamless; otherwise, you feel almost immediately removed. There aren't showstopping numbers that could even think of standing alongside classics like Aladdin's "A Whole New World"; the songs are mostly enjoyable, almost Broadway-friendly, such as the duet between the sisters entitled "The First Time in Forever" and Olaf's entertaining but bittersweet "In Summer". But disappointingly, the love song "Love is an Open Door" is highly mediocre.
With the exception of "Mulan" and arguably "Brave", this animation features the most powerful and independent lead female characters from Disney in recent times. It's a refreshing change from past fare, with the studio recognising that making a kiss from a prince a do-or-die thing could use some updating and inspiration from other young adult role models, like Katniss from "The Hunger Games". Elsa, in particular, is admirably talented and perhaps overly powerful, hindered only by a lack of confidence and overwhelming fear of rejection. One can feel her self-actualisation unfolding when Menzel belts out the moving epic solo "Let It Go". Anna's determination shines through despite her neediness and immaturity. There is some element of dependence on the men in the film Kristoff was essential out in the wilds but when it comes down to it, both sisters relied on their own courage and wit to overcome the odds.
Bell leverages on her sprightly voice as Anna, who never lets the energy or pace flag and Groff is an impressive singer, but both are clearly outclassed by the solid prowess of Menzel, who is by far the best of the lot and ups the musical ante.
While not especially funny or romantic, the clever plot turns and the eventual twist at the end rounds up this wintry tale with a polished finish.
You probably wouldn't figure pop star turned actor Juno Mak for a
serious filmmaker; after all, the singer cum fashionista is best known
for being one of Gillian Chung's ex-boyfriends. That is precisely why
his directorial debut 'Rigor Mortis' will take you by surprise. A
visually stunning homage to the 1980s heydays of Hong Kong cinema when
the vampire genre was very much alive (mostly in the form of the
"hopping vampire" horror comedies), it proves itself to be so much more
than a feast for genre fans, packing a surprisingly amount of emotional
depth and establishing itself as a refreshingly different kind of meta-
Vampire aficionados will immediately recognise lead actor Chin Siu-ho from the opening scene, one of the last surviving alum of the classic 1985 'Mr Vampire' series (Mak dedicates the film to the two other deceased members, Lam Ching Ying and Ricky Hui) who plays himself as a washed-up movie star who moves into a dilapidated tenement building to commit suicide. That act of despair introduces him to Uncle Yau (Anthony Chan Yau, erstwhile drummer of the 1970s band The Wynners as well as Chin's supporting star from 'Mr Vampire'), a veteran Taoist vampire hunter who now runs his own food stall around the neighbourhood.
Besides Uncle Yau, Chin also gains the attention of the other mostly elderly tenants of the complex played by equally venerable veterans of Hong Kong cinema. Nina Paw and Richard Ng are a devoted couple whose bond of love is tested when one of them meets with an accident and winds up dead. Chung Fat is a local temple priest who happens to be dabbling in the backroom of his apartment in the dark arts. Kara Hui is a single mother to an albino boy whose tragic past is linked to the apartment which Chin moves into. And last but not least, Johnnie To regular Lo Hoi Pang is the building's sole security guard who watches the comings and goings of the block with a wary but watchful eye.
As one of the screenwriters, Mak (who co-writes with Philip Yung and Jill Leung) likes to keep his cards close to his chest. There is no hurry in the way he slowly reveals the backstory of each of the characters, opting instead to build an eerie and unsettling atmosphere of suspense and dread with every frame. While that does demand a certain level of patience from its viewer, Mak is surprisingly effective at getting under the skin of his audience with a strong visual style heavy with musty subdued colours. The influence by producer Takashi Shimizu of 'The Grudge' is undeniable, but Mak holds its own with some truly hypnotic images in slo-mo no less.
Borrowing a leaf from his 'Revenge: A Love Story' director Wong Ching Po, Mak stages the action sequences with a fair amount of graphic violence. Yes, more faint-headed audiences should take note - some of the scenes not only get bloody, but can get rather disturbingly violent, and will surely startle the more squeamish at heart. But even as Mak clearly intends for his film to appeal as well to a younger audience who crave for such vivid details, he never does get excessive, demonstrating a fair bit of restraint in scenes which could have easily been much more explicit.
Mak also pairs his gory thrills with a generous helping of visual effects, relying less and less on his natural surroundings and more on lavishly designed dreamscapes that only make sense if one understands the rituals at the heart of the film (indeed, that's something very likely to be lost on a Western audience). Truth be told, the VFX-heavy climax was somewhat alienating to watch at first, but eventually made complete sense when viewed in the context of the love-it-or-hate-it coda. Don't say we didn't warn you - it doesn't quite end the way you want it to; instead, Mak throws in a last-minute twist that will undoubtedly throw you off-kilter, but in our opinion, is a unusually elegant eulogy to a genre and its stalwarts who have long since gone out of fashion.
Unmistakable throughout the film is a distinct sense of loss and regret, whether in the form of a loving wife who tries all she can to preserve the life of her deceased husband or the inability of vengeful spirits to let go of their tragic past or even an individual's desolation at having f**ked up his life with his loved ones. The same could be said of the veterans who make up the ensemble cast; despite being icons in the past, they have largely been forgotten by modern Hong Kong cinema, and just going by each of their compelling performances here, reason to mourn for the passing of a significant era of the industry. Like 'Gallants' from two years ago, there is a palpable sense of nostalgia one gets watching these veterans take to the screen like they never left.
And 'Rigor Mortis' deserves to be appreciated in that very light, as a tribute to the 'keung si' genre as well as Mak's personal thoughts on their fortunes since. The fact that he is a newcomer to filmmaking makes this an even bigger triumph for Mak, who delivers a thrilling and unexpectedly poignant horror movie steeped in its own unique visual aesthetic. We're not denying that there will be those who dislike Mak for pulling the rug from under their feet right at the end, but it is to us a graceful and thought-provoking turn that makes it an unusual and inspired piece of meta-cinema.
Its selection for the Quinzaine des Realisateurs (or Directors
Fortnight) at the Cannes Film Festival this year might confer a certain
pedigree, but Los Angeles-based Irish filmmaker Ruairi Robinson's debut
feature is really no more than a ho-hum B-grade sci-fi actioner. Based
on genre author Sydney J. Bounds' 175 short story 'The Animators', it
pits a research crew during the final 19 hours of their mission on Mars
against a virulent strain of bacteria from the planet that turns humans
zombies - and just to be clear, we're not talking slow-moving
ones like 'The Walking Dead' but something more akin to the zombies on
steroids in 'World War Z'.
There is no doubt an inherent cheesiness to the premise in this day and age, so in order to be taken seriously, it would need a compelling enough script to hook its viewers in. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Clive Dawson's screenplay lacks. The characters are no more than stock types - Live Schreiber's Vincent Campbell is a reluctant hero struggling with a traumatic past; there's the textbook coward Richard Harrington (Tom Cullen) who cares only for preserving his own life; there's the bitchy female character Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams) who can't quite fit in with any of the rest; and then there's of course the one hiding a secret, Marko Petrovic (Goran Kostic), whose own selfish ambition inadvertently unleashes the disaster on everyone else.
Not only are the characters too familiar, the scenarios are also all too predictable. After a relatively promising setup in the first half hour, the rest of the movie quickly descends into a run-of-the-mill survival picture where you'll be able to guess just who dies first, dies later or gets to last till the end. It doesn't help that Robinson doesn't quite have the grasp of a good choreographer of tense white-knuckle action, so despite the claustrophobic settings, what we end up thinking is not how nail-biting things must be but rather how repetitive the sequences of characters running for some decompression chamber and/or airlock while shouting "c'mon! c'mon! c'mon" are. Even as a straightforward action movie, it hardly impresses, worse still when it takes itself so utterly seriously.
Not that there aren't small merits to be acknowledged here - like we said, the first half hour is a pretty engaging affair, in no small part due to the humbling Martian backdrops that we see plenty of. Designed and shot on location in the Jordan desert, the settings convey both the desolation and the expanse of how life on the Red Planet would have been. Another small blessing is the acting, anchored by a empathetic performance by character actor Schreiber. Probably one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood today, he projects gravitas and draws empathy to his lead role as a person struggling with his own personal demons. Other supporting acts like Williams, Romola Garai and Elias Koteas also lend solid support, but are otherwise hemmed in by a script that doesn't seem bothered to develop their respective characters over the course of the movie.
On balance therefore, 'The Last Days of Mars' is neither appalling nor outstanding; indeed, it is mediocre in almost every aspect, and is unlikely to do for Robinson what 'Moon' did for Duncan Jones or say 'Monsters' for Gareth Edwards. This is no great sci-fi, perhaps even more disappointing arriving in the wake of Alfonso Cuaron's breathtaking 'Gravity', and very likely to underwhelm audiences looking for anything smart or intelligent. Yes, proof of life on the Red Planet remains very much a myth, and as long as the track record of movies set on Mars remains as spotty as this, there isn't much doubt why.
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